Pronto’s fate is a warning to all

The difficulties of launching a rival to the National Lottery have been underlined again this week with the suspension of the Pronto rapidly-repeating lottery game. Pronto, played every five to ten minutes in pubs around the country, was launched at the end of last year to a fanfare of publicity and a commitment from Home Office minister George Howarth to ban the game – which he accused of encouraging addictive gambling.

In the event, the game was never a great success in its truncated eight-month life. It turned over between 75,000 and 160,000 a week, barely enough to leave a profit for operating company Inter Lotto once prizes, charities and taxes were paid.

The original target of 2,000 pubs where the game would operate was soon slimmed down, and when Pronto was switched off last Friday, it was only being played in about 370 pubs. The suspension leaves the Government in a difficult situation. It is still commited to outlawing the game, but has been dragging its feet when it comes to setting aside Parliamentary time.

It appears that the demise of Pronto came about after MMK, the company which operates the terminals and the operating centre which employs 120 people, found its computer link-ups were faulty. For this it blames BT. Whatever the reasons behind these claims, Camelot directors may use this technical meltdown as evidence that they themselves have performed a skilled job in setting up and running the UK National Lottery virtually without a glitch.

However, Camelot’s detractors will argue that the demise of Pronto, just like the demise of the NHS Loto last year, shows the difficulties of taking on the Leviathan of the National Lottery, with its in-built monopoly and huge advertising budget. Vernons has decided that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, and is running its Easy Play game through Camelot’s terminals. Sales of about 1.7m a week seem healthy enough since its launch two weeks ago, giving it a turnover of up to 100m a year.

For Inter Lotto, however, the next few days will be tense as it tries to rescue the Pronto game from total extinction. There are alternative technical operators – Scientific Games of the US and AWI to name two.

The anti-gambling lobby may welcome the demise of Pronto, but charities such as ChildLine, Mencap and Help the Hospice have been left some 750,000 richer with its proceeds; punters have enjoyed the game; and pub landlords made a little extra cash on the side. The game’s demise may leave the way clear for another group of hopefuls to launch a rival to the National Lottery. But on past experience, this will be a costly and unrewarding exercise.v

News story, page 5

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